Fantasia Festival 2020: Crazy Samurai Musashi (2020)

Crazy Samurai Musashi (2020)

Crazy Samurai Musashi

Director: Yuji Shimomura

Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Kento Yamazaki, Masaaki Takarai, Akihiko Sai

A clan’s future hangs in the balance. A boy of noble birth waits by a temple. The dishonor of his father and the death of his brother must be avenged. The boy is merely bait, there to draw out the enemy who has brought shame upon the Yoshioka school of swordfighting. In the surrounding woods, hundreds of Yoshioka retainers lurk, weapons at the ready, in anticipation of the solitary swordsman’s arrival. This will not be a fair fight. Not fair at all. – Fantasia Festival

With only beginning and ending scenes with the actual plot, Crazy Samurai Musashi is mostly all about its 77 minute one take samurai fighting scene in between where Musashi faces an unfair amount of 400 mercenaries and other clan samurai who all want his dead. A few of these have a bit more dialogue which indicates some kind of deeper desire to win or more competent which isn’t always the case.

77 minutes of fighting is still a little much. It becomes a little flat since its easy to start seeing who will get hit on the head or get slashed elsewhere. It gives a lot of space to start nitpicking and seeing the little moments of people getting hit and then running off screen for example that feels like its a constant rinse and repeat cycle. It is 400 people to 1 person so its nothing that’s unexpected. Its also a lot of the same moves with some more elaborate fighting choreography here and there. However, credit where credit is due, the fight choreography does take the time to go from the lighter elements in the beginning to being more lethal as there’s more blood spill and such. It all escalates to this fight in the rain that is definitely one of the high points of the film. The score also changes throughout almost like the fights shifts from one phase to the next. The film also takes the time between these transitions for Musashi to be human and look for water thats conveniently strewn about in little corners of the house that he can find instantaneously.

It has its appeal at the beginning when the story starts off with a specific scene where Musashi shows up and then the one take starts and it seems a little funny to see people running off screen or being shielded to move off screen or whatnot. The one take techniques comes into play and its fun to watch how its executed in this sense but then fighting goes on for a long time and its wears down the pacing a lot. It might feel a little more gimmick than proper execution in this sense. The backstory is decent but the focus on the story is so little that there isn’t a whole lot of engagement with the characters to begin with.

Overall, Crazy Samurai Musashi might be only suitable for those with an incredible love for either the technical one take movies or samurai movies on general. For myself who isn’t quite that hardcore and more focused on more thorough story line, this one fell a little flat in the middle, even if the movie does give some changes like score and the pacing of the fight choreography. The one take and some of the fight scenes and even the filming and use of the setting and the score is really nice but there’s just something missing to make this more engaging.

Fantasia Festival 2020: The Paper Tigers (World Premiere 2020)

The Paper Tigers (2020)

The Paper Tigers

Director (and writer): Quoc Bao Tran

Cast: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Matthew Page, Ken Quitugua, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Jae Suh Park

Three Kung Fu prodigies have grown into washed-up, middle-aged men, now one kick away from pulling their hamstrings. But when their master is murdered, they must juggle their dead-end jobs, dad duties, and old grudges to avenge his death. – IMDB

The Paper Tigers is one of the absolute hidden gems of this year’s festival. Its another type of martial arts movies that focuses on a script that stays true to the traditional practice of Kung Fu. It adds in all the proper Chinese terms that the disciples all learn and the different clans and how the ranking goes with how the “bei mo” challenge for someone who wants to fight for a position or whatnot goes. Its all a new eye at the roots of the virtues of practicing is like honor and brotherhood. “Paper tiger” is a common term in Chinese used to represent someone who appears/claims to be threatening but actually isn’t, which is a perfect title that encapsulates this entire film.

Its great to see someone making movies about these key virtues and values that is much more than the actual fighting bit. Ken Quitagua, who also plays one of the later characters Zhen Fan, is the action director that crafts so great fighting choreography. With that said, they don’t cheap out on the fighting either although its more of an action comedy so the fighting wraps in the rusty out of practice Kung Fu skills of these middle age men who have more heart than skills but slowly finds back some of their groove, at least those able to do it between these three friends: Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). For them, its about the values and friendships that they treasured when they were young and because of all the curveballs life has thrown them, they seem to have forgotten the basics of those values that don’t thrive so well in their current reality. The course of this “adventure” or “revenge mission” takes them all for a loop, especially for Danny who the movie focuses mostly around his backstory and life with his divorced wife and being a father to a young boy.

The Paper Tigers is a straightforward story. Its clear cut and doesn’t pad it with a lot of unnecessary tangents but sticks true to the three main characters who are portrayed incredibly well by its cast. They have their own issues to deal with and then they have a lot of the rivalry from past and present that they need to deal with. Its all well-paced and everything hits its marks really well throughout. It shows the years of how the Three Tigers get together as children and then young adults and then for some reason that gets revealed in the plot, what separated them when they reunite to find out what happened to their “Si Fu” aka Master. It also brings in the clever use over and over again in different situations about the Chinese proverb, “Two tigers cannot share a mountain” which they word it a little differently but means the same thing essentially.

the paper tigers

Whether its the humor or the character or the nod to Kung Fu martial arts, its virtues and respect, its all such a great balance of everything that makes it an exceptionally enjoyable viewing. As a finishing note, as I was watching this, it reminded me of Ang Lee’s debut films of Father Knows Best Trilogy that also used the same sort of story-telling methods of presenting a scenario (entertaining or not, like Pushing Hands or The Wedding Banquet) that actually embedded a lot of traditional customs and exhibiting a new culture to the public. There’s a lot of positive vibes from watching a movie like The Paper Tigers.

John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)

John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)

Director: Chad Stahelski

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn

Super-assassin John Wick is on the run after killing a member of the international assassin’s guild, and with a $14 million price tag on his head – he is the target of hit men and women everywhere. – IMDB

Let’s face it. Not a whole lot of movies make it to the third film in a franchise and are still watchable. Its a very small amount of films that get that far without actually just watching it with a lot of hope. That doesn’t apply to the John Wick franchise because while the second film might not have been as good as the first film (in my opinion, of course), the third film has a lot of the qualities of what makes this franchise stand out (the action, the style and the characters) while there are still some bits that get toned down but other elements gets amped up and yet, it all seems to come together for the thrilling ride. It does help that John Wick has the plot of everyone trying to chase him down and the tension from that situation. But John Wick is a man with a plan, even when things get crazy, the one hour grace time he got from Winston (Ian McShane) in John Wick 2 was enough for him to somehow construct his next move and hope for the best that it would get him to where he needed to be. At the same time, the story wasn’t just with John Wick trying to survive but at the same time, his actions causing the High Table to send out the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to trace back to those who didn’t stop him despite knowing what he had done and delivering their punishment.

John Wick 3

Parabellum does a lot of things right. For one, it keeps it a fairly straight forward story. It has two story lines going on at the same time that links to each other. Its not complicated to follow and while it does rely a little on the previous movie, you could essentially sit down and watch this one simply knowing the pretext that John Wick had an hour grace period to make his escape and sit down to enjoy this one. It might have some confusing elements in terms of how the assassin tree of power works, I guess but then a lot of it wasn’t really explained before either so here we learn a little more about those elements as John Wick fights for his freedom. However, aside from that, what has always made this franchise thrive is its action and fast-paced story. The action choreography as well as the fighting scenes here excel. There is a bit more of a subtle background track than the previous movies however it does still work to meld well with the situation. At the same time, there is a lot of change in different weapons or techniques in the situation that John Wick ends up which gives it a lot of creativity even in having horses and other elements.

John Wick 3

Parabellum also manages to keep its charm by retaining its characters whether its John Wick which is a role absolutely perfect for Keanu Reeves or Ian McShane’s Winston or Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King or the Continental’s concierge Charon played by Lance Reddick which are all standout characters that make this movie shine. Parabellum brings forth a few new characters as well. The first to mention probably is Halle Berry as Sofia and Angelica Huston as The Director, two characters who we learn had past business with John Wick and helps him reluctantly. Both of them being ladies who are quite intense however Angelica Huston having the more power in her words and attitude and Halle Berry being the one with some of the really fantastic action scenes as she is accompanied by two dogs. Then we have somewhat of a more villainous character which is The Adjudicator played by Asia Kate Dillon who actually seems like the tough chick role who you’d expect would end up being in some fight scenes but she was there solely to lay out the deal as a diplomat sort of role which is pretty interesting. With that said, this one added in some dark humor which was less obvious than in this one and it had to do with the villain bad-ass fighter Zero played by Mark Dacascos who is this fanboy of John Wick but also wants to be the one to take him out. He does a fantastic job. The characters here remain very strong and add a lot of charm to the film and the story and its these characters that add depth and substance.

Overall, John Wick 3 does an awesome job. Its still not quite at the John Wick level of awesome but its pretty close. There’s a lot here that works and while some of the things feel like it speeds through it, things still fall into place and the heart of the story is in the right place. It also helps to have all these characters that have some mystery and so much to discover while managing to keep the action and fighting sequence fresh and fun.

***As a side note, there were moments it did feel like it was moments of tribute to Keanu Reeves past movies. I mean the obvious is Laurence Fishburne and some other Matrix-like moves while you have signs like Bridge Closed, which it felt like was a Speed reference and I’m sure there’s tons of other stuff that I missed.***

Fantasia Festival 2018: Big Brother (World Premiere 2018)

Big Brother (2018)

Big Brother

Director: Ka-Wai Kam

Cast: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Yu Kang, Mingji Lou, Fung Woo

Big Brother is an unexpected title in Donnie Yen’s filmography however, also one that he has been wanting to do. It is about education and sending the positive message that everyone can follow their dreams even those left behind and ignored by the very competitive Hong Kong education system. It only takes an honest and passionate educator to go beyond their duties to make sure their students go back on the right path. Playing as Mr. Chen, Yen’s role is one that marries the sparse but exciting action scenes that we have come to expect with a more profound dramatic moments focussing specifically on five of the students considered the losers in the “bad” class. His heartfelt performance has some comedic moments especially in the unorthodox way of teaching which fits incredibly well to this out of the box character.

Big Brother

While there are some cameo and supporting roles with more seasoned actors and actresses especially the Taiwanese actress Joe Chen as one of the teachers and Fung Woo as the ex-principal in an inspiring role as well, the five young actors are all first time actors. This decision is a smart one to keep their stories feel real and genuine.  While some of the stories feel dramatized for the movie, the reality is that in the Hong Kong society, their stories are common: alcoholic dad; Hong Kong born Pakistani origins; daughters feeling less important than sons and the high risk of the triad preying on high school students to get them to do their dirty work. For these young cast, they did a great job at each of their respective roles as they each had their own dreams which broke the barrier of the expectations of where they are from.

Big Brother

A lot of praise does have to go to assistant director turned director Ka-Wai Kam as he steps into the director’s chair a fourth time with this project. It is obvious that he has a lot of experience tucked away with the way he maneuvers his shots to capture the moments. He finds a way to add in the action seamlessly to a more dramatic film while not forgetting the focal point of reflecting how a flawed education system breeds the issues that are occurring and puts its focus on a few members to give these characters their well-deserved development and never making them feel disposable. Not to mention, the scenes itself speak for themselves and how these vibrant characters have connected with its audience.

World premiering at Fantasia Festival a whole two and a half weeks before its release in Hong Kong, Big Brother brings both heartwarming and heartbreaking stories about some very real and human everyday life aspects of the Hong Kong education system, the criticism towards its teachers and the society views of it all.  Add this to your collection of inspirational education movies like Freedom Writers, Big Brother might have some societal barriers to understand some of the finer details but its heart to bring a positive message and highlight the flaws in the current education system is one that needs to be addressed. It takes one person willing to go above and beyond to make a difference. It’s perfectly suitable for Donnie Yen. Big Brother is a positively inspiring movie that manages to tug at your heartstrings and cheer for following your dreams and paying it forward.

Fantasia Fest 2015: Kung Fu Killer (2014)

Fantasia Festival is one of the times of year that I love. As mentioned before, 11 movies lined up this year. Last year, my Hong Kong selection was the last movie in the lineup. It feels like I unintentionally flipped it around because this year, my Hong Kong selection kicks off the festival. Its definitely a good thing. Especially with a two movie night on the first day.

The most unexpected part is that the lineup was intense. Its really intense for a Chinese movie. The most packed I’ve been to it. Maybe it has to do with Donnie Yen being our main guy in this crime thriller called Kung Fu Killer.  I’m a huge fan of Donnie Yen and I’ve seen almost every movie that he’s been in.  This one boasts that its all about martial arts, so I’m totally down for it 🙂

Let’s check it out!

Kung Fu Killer (2014)

(also called: Kung Fu Jungle)

kung fu killer

Director: Teddy Chan

Cast: Donnie Yen, Baoqiang Wang, Charlie Yeung, Michelle Bai, Alex Fong, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Xing Yu, Siu-Wong Fan

Three years ago, martial arts instructor for the police force Hahou Mo (Donnie Yen) accidentally kills an opponent in a duel and confesses his crime right away.  This lands him with a five year sentence.  When a man is found dead by brutal force in a suspicious way, Mo does everything possible to offer up his knowledge to help the police.  In exchange, they have to let him out.  Reluctantly, Detective Luk (Charlie Yeung) recruits his help as they track down the killer who is targeting the top martial arts masters and challenging them to a duel to death.  Will Mo be able to stop the killer before too many lives are lost?

Kung Fu Killer

Right from the very cool opening scene with credits, Donnie Yen is not only the main lead but the action director of Kung Fu Killer.  That is as promising as it can get for a movie which focuses on the true essence of martial arts, reaching for the roots.  The best way to approach this review is to look at step by step.  If you go to this movie, what are you expecting? For me, phenomenal martial arts and action sequences.  If you look at the actors recruited for even the short roles of the martial arts masters here, they are all deeply rooted in various aspects of martial arts.  With the right cast, this movie speaks with the authenticity of the arts which is there whether we venture into the world of boxing, kicking, grappling, or weapons.  It touches on all of it.  Every action scene is tense and thriller to watch even if you can predict the outcome. On top of that, trying to stay traditional with the arts, it still knows how to add creativity to the scenes to make it as original and breathtaking, especially that last battle.

Kung Fu Killer

Kung Fu Killer has a solid enough story to carry it through.  It also carries a few meaningful messages about what the essence of martial arts, how to keep control over your emotions and remembering your responsibilities and staying honorable.  It can even carry the message that life is about the choices you make, about finding that balance to treat something as an art and not a killing device.  All very relevant to action movies like this which leans toward a more violent side with a brutal and vicious villain like Fung Yu-Sau (Baoqiang Wang).  The bad guy here, Fung, is a peculiar one.  A part of me doesn’t quite buy his act but there is no doubt that his character was scripted to be a maniac, a martial arts crazed maniac who is all about the ancient methods of his training to become No.1 that its become an obsession.  For that part, this guy does a really good job.  He’s a bit of an unpredictable goof in his expressions and whatnot but he has mad martial arts skills that he gets to show off as he fights each opponent.

Kung Fu Killer

But, as brilliant as some of the casting decisions were in the fighting domain.  Props goes out to Michelle Bai who shows off some stellar sword fighting abilities, I wasn’t so excited about our main actress here playing Detective Luk by Charlie Yeung.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like Charlie Yeung as a soft docile girl.  Something about her doesn’t pull off that tough lady cop thing really well.  Plus, the theatre laughed a lot at the dialogue, especially hers.  I don’t know if it was like they were liking it or not but for me, something felt like it was missing.  She just didn’t seem commanding enough for that role. While I’m at the dialogue, this one has some pretty bad script in general.  I’m not saying anyone really cares but I didn’t need to read subtitles but when I did catch a glimpse of it, I kind of giggled a little at it because watching it was already a little laugh out loud but those subtitles.  But then, there aren’t all that many lines. I was there for the action part of it. If I had to be nitpicky, there was a scene or two of bad CGI and then one particular scene that I swore I saw the wire during a battle. So really, just little flaws here and there. Plus, they offset it by putting Alex Fong in here even if its just a small Police Chief Inspector role.  I loved this guy when he used to do TV series and he makes a great cop. Okay, need to turn off the fangirl mode.

Overall, Kung Fu Killer isn’t meant to be a cinematic masterpiece.  It carries a decent and rather simple story that brings in the essence of the battle in martial arts.  The tribute of martial arts gives it a variety of fighting skills and with the stakes of death being the final result, every fight is high intense and thrilling to watch.  Most of the cast was done perfectly, especially getting actual actors trained in martial arts, there was just one casting choice I wasn’t fully convinced worked to this film’s advantage.  However, even though the dialogue was not exactly great, I was there for some mind-blowing action sequences and that delivered all the way!

Have you seen Kung Fu Killer? Are you fan of Donnie Yen and/or martial arts?

Check back tomorrow for the review of the second movie at Fantasia that I saw and a creature feature from Ireland called The Hallow!

Tai Chi Zero (2012)

Yesterday was my best friend’s birthday.  I’ve showed some pictures of us together and all but she’s like my sister.  She’s actually been reading my blogs lately and I’m extremely happy about that.  So I decided that since she’s been talking about wanting me to check out Tai Chi Zero on Netflix for a while,  I’ll do it just because its her special day! I’ve been meaning to for a while but I get a weird vibe from the movie itself so lets see what I thought about it…

tai chi zero posterDirector: Stephen Fung

Cast: Jayden Yuan, Qi Shu, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Mandy Lieu, Da Ying

Lu Chan/The Freak (Jayden Yuan)  was born  unusual with a weird horn-like growth on his head.  His mother (Qi Shu) always believed that he was special unlike his father who constantly neglected him.  His mother’s last words to him were to do one thing well and that was to perfect his gift, the ability to learn kung-fu steps quickly and be  a master of kung fu. He was taken in by the Divine Truth Cult that exploited his gifts in war, however, the doctor advised him to leave and seek the Chen Style Kung-Fu which was a powerful form of Tai-chi in Chen Village which was never taught to outsiders.  That was the only chance to save his life to balance the energy in his body. At Chen Village, Master Chen is not there and his disciples including Yu Niang (Angelababy) stops him with stages to make him get through before allowing him to learn the arts.  However, at the same time, a previous resident, now a chief engineer, Zi Jing (Eddie Peng) for the government to enforce a railroad that the town opposes to be built through their village comes with his technology to force his way.  Luchan may be the town’s only chance of survival.

tai chi zero fight

Tai Chi Zero is a peculiar Chinese action movie.  It reminds me of a mash-up of Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer with combat video games and comic books style (similar to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World).  For a good part of the beginning, I felt like it was ripping off those movies.  I can’t say its a great film because the story wasn’t really all that good, however, it did have some pretty good action sequences.  I mean guess who the action director is? Sammo Hung, guys! No one can really beat Sammo Hung at this.  I have immense praise for him.  In the position of director, we have Stephen Fung. I like Stephen Fung a lot when he was an actor.  As I looked through his earlier directing efforts, I realized that I have seen two of them.  I really can’t say I enjoyed those much which makes this one shine in comparison.

tai chi zero angelababy

Its a pity that the script wasn’t more engaging because the cast did a great job at the character portrayal.  I didn’t have many hopes for them since I can’t really take an actress with the name of Angelababy very seriously and she hasn’t really done any impressive roles before this, but I have to say she did alright.  She’s slowly earning my respect.  Our main character was played by Jayden Yuan, 2008 Olympics Wushu champion.  I can’t say he had to do an incredible amount of dialogue or acting but hey, he sure can fight.  I’ll give him that! He was pretty incredible.

tai chi zero tony ka fai leung

The person I think deserves mention is definitely our Grandmaster, Tony Ka Fai Leung.  I’ve reviewed a few of his movies before, most recently being Cold War (check out the review HERE). After his exceptional performance in the Hong Kong mob flick Election, this actor has been way off the charts awesome. I used to ignore his movies and I really can’t get into his appeal but to me, he’s really been involved in some pretty great movies and in this one, he really brings out everything.  He adds hints of humor, great fights and has some of the relevant and meaningful dialogue.  He was the perfect choice for the role. Playing the bad guy in this one is Eddie Peng, who coincidentally was also in Cold War and played Tony’s son.  You know how some people just have that bad guy look? Eddie Peng has that! He looks bad-ass all the time, which makes him really good when he’s being really bad.  Does that even make sense?

tai chi zero monster

The main thing you need to remember when walking into this movie is to throw out that whole balance of everything working out.  This movie is plain weird.  The best part are definitely the fight scenes.  Everyone does great.  Everything single one is worthy of applause and that last final battle was set in stages and man, just one *spoiler* (maybe the trailer has it, but I never seen it), once you see stage one and all those fruits and vegetables flying out the doors and windows, I couldn’t help but to laugh at the craziness of it all! *spoiler ends* That last fight is so much CGI, its ridiculous! The only way you buy into this movie is to buy into that.

Its tough to say whether I recommend it.  Its definitely an original and unique martial arts movie.  Stephen Fung deserves every bit of credit in that.  Its definitely worth a watch, however, I did have to take a good 15-20 minutes to get used to it and the beginning didn’t really appeal to me as much.  But, once the movie starts flowing and we get into Chen Village, things start getting a whole lot more fun and entertaining and its full of amazing fights and kung fu/tai-chi moves.  If thats your thing, you might just enjoy this peculiar little film.